(This post features a gallery containing 46 photos)
– „Oh no, shit!“
– „What is it, Klas?“
I turn around. About 20 km before the Russian city Penza we stop at an abandoned gas station to have a quick lunch break. We know that Klas prefers extensive breaks but we can’t do him the favour now. We slowed down our pace the last couple of days because of these extensive breaks. We extended them for Klas’ sake. However, that’s not going to happen this time, we can’t afford that. We need to keep going.
– “Klas, we should get going, again. It’s getting colder the longer we remain stationary.”
However, Klas is not going anywhere soon. I see him kneeling at the rear rack of his bike. It turns out that it will be a longer break. One of the two bolts that carry all the weight of the luggage on the rear rack (up to 20-30kg) broke. One half of the bolt (the one without the head) got stuck in the threads, which means that there is absolutely no way of unscrewing or replacing the broken bolt (Klas has enough spare bolts with him, that’s not the problem though). Without a working rear rack, you’re basically doomed. How else are you going to carry all your luggage?
– “Guys, I’m done. My tour is over. I will need to go home. There’s no way I can fix that. I’m done.”
Klas is completely lost. I can see the disappointment and hopelessness in his eyes. His face looks like the face of a man who has lived the misery of one hundred men. Klas is devastated. I do not understand though. Ok, it’s an important bolt, I get it. The situation is serious, yes. However, how can you lose your head like this? It’s not the end of the world. We manage to calm Klas down.
– “There’s no way you’re going home, Klas. Get a grip! This world tour is your dream. It’s just a damn bolt, don’t be stupid. We’ll find a solution for that, come on.”
The truth is, I did not feel as confident as my speech might suggest. That particular bolt is not just a “damn bolt”, in fact. If we’re not able to fix that as fast as possible, then there is no way for Klas to carry his luggage any further. And if that’s the case then there is indeed no other way than returning home… but let’s not think too much in that direction. We need a clear mind.
– “Look, Klas. In a few kilometres we arrive in Penza. It’s a big city. We’re bound to find a garage or something. Those guys know how to deal with a stuck screw. That’s their everyday business.”
Dominik and I remember that it’s Sunday, but we don’t mention that to Klas. His situation is bad enough; we can’t expect him to deal with unpleasant facts, too. Maybe we are lucky and a garage is indeed open. In the worst case, he will have to stay at a hotel overnight and try again the next day. Still at the abandoned gas station, we temporarily fix in place the rear rack using a different hole of the frame. It works and looks stable, but it’s definitely not a permanent solution, especially on rough roads.
After an hour, we arrive in Penza, looking hard for a garage, when, all of the sudden, we see it: a Volkswagen car dealer, a really big one! And you won’t believe it: it’s open! But we don’t dare to start celebrating just yet. They might not have a garage. Dominik enters the showroom and says the words “bike” and “help” in Russian, hoping for the best. Surprisingly, we are promptly led around the building to the backyard, to the garage. “Now that we can’t be seen from the street anymore we’ll get a proper Russian-style beating”, I jokingly think. However, that couldn’t be further away from the truth. In fact, we can’t quite comprehend our luck. Not only did they do a perfect job on Klas’ and Dominik’s bike (he had problems with his bicycle stand and some bolts, too) but they also didn’t want to take any money whatsoever and generally considered it an honour to help us. Can you believe that? In addition, we were invited by the main manager to coffee and a chat in the large, shiny showroom where all the latest VW cars are displayed, while our bikes got repaired in the garage! Never ever had we dreamed to get treated like guests rather than the three filthy bikers that we essentially were. We are overwhelmed and surprised by the kindness of the Russian people towards us, not just on this occasion but throughout our whole time in this country.
When we leave the VW car dealer, we are more than happy. Especially Klas is. His bike is like new. So, of course he is happy. However, that’s probably about to change. We wait until we are somewhat outside the city, at a gas station again. Dominik and I decided that it’s me who’s going to have “the talk” with Klas. I dread it. I feel bad. Still, we need to address something. Actually, the matter is this: our ways of conducting a bike tour simply don’t match. It would be irresponsible on our behalf to have Klas join us any longer. Here is the point: there is no false way of doing a bike tour. Our way of doing stuff is as correct as Klas’ is. And still, we have to part ways. It’s an unpleasant task having to say that you’re basically doing everything correct but still false.
– “Klas, we need to talk to you about something. Remember when you said that you wanted to come with us all the way through Russia and Kazakhstan?”
– “Well, I don’t think that’s a good idea. Maybe you noticed that we’re forcing our way of doing things upon you. Moreover, YOU are forcing yourself to do things like us, just for the sake of staying with us. Dominik and I, also, are forcing ourselves to do things in such a way that you are satisfied. However, this middle way is not good, for none of us. For example, think about how our breaks look like since we ride together. On the one hand, we are not making them as short as we would like, on the other hand they’re not as extensive as you would see necessary. It’s a compromise that no one is really happy about.”
– “Or take the matter of sleeping into consideration. We enjoy staying in our tents, whereas you usually stay in motels. Which is perfectly fine, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure you’ve noticed that the last few days Dominik and I stayed in motels as well, so we could all be together. We like it, it’s comfortable, but it’s not really in our budget for a longer period of time. It’s not sustainable for us. But then again, we don’t want to force you to use your tent more often. That would be frustrating for you.” (That one time when we all used our tents all three of us ended up soaked to the skin from the rain, see previous blogpost)
– “Yeah, I thought about that as well… maybe we should split up, guys. Maybe that’s better.”
– “Yeah, maybe we really should. Basically, we’re forcing our style upon you, which is just not right. It makes us feel guilty. Our way of doing things works well for us, and since we are already two we do not really want to adapt to a different way. You’re a great guy, you will go your way. Let’s just not mix together what can’t be mixed.”
– “Sounds about right, guys.”
I’m glad. Klas took it much better than expected. The discussion was less awkward than I dreaded it to be. The best thing is that both parties are happy with the outcome and that no one feels left behind or violated. With a positive feeling, we hit the road for the last afternoon together. When we arrive at a motel that evening, it’s time for the final goodbye. There are no tears and no hard feelings involved. Just a liberating sense of freedom for Klas and for us. As Klas proceeds to enter the motel we are already on our way down the road, looking for a spot for our tents.
(Klas, in case you’re reading this: thanks again for letting us be a part of your tour. It’s been a blast with you. You know how much we enjoyed the time together. Thank you for showing us the trick with the water, and thank you for sorting out our messed up Russian-Kazakh-route. Wherever you are right now, I know that you’re absolutely crushing it.)
Several days after parting ways with Klas, we cross Europe’s longest river: the Volga, with a length of 3.530 km. The crossing consists of a bridge (who would have thought!) with an enormous hydroelectric power plant, processing the large masses of waters. It’s an incredible sight. I’ve never witnessed something this size. It’s frightening to see and hear with what an ear-deafening thunder the tons of water crush from great heights into the river on the other side of the power plant. The air is humid from spray. The main road (for that matter: the bridge) is basically leading through and along the power plant. I want to film the Volga, which is right underneath me! Note: the river, not the power plant! Well, sounds good, but does not work in Russia. The very next minute after bringing out my camera, a highly decorated military man stands next to me. Upon spoting me holding the device, he had turned around his car, with emergency lights switched on. Talk about exaggerating. Anyway, here I am, standing next to this man, without a clue what he wants. He starts asking questions. I act dumb (since it helped so often when dealing with officials on this tour). As far as I understand, he wants me to delete the clips. No problem, done. Then he starts to annoy us, asking whether we have a special permission for going over this bridge (while literally hundreds of cars overtake us on the very same bridge. Without a doubt, they all have that special permission). Of course, we don’t have anything like that. He orders a security man, who had joined our weird group in the meanwhile, to record our personal data. The little, plump man obediently and conscientiously does as told. Carefully he fishes a tiny, ragged piece of scrap paper out of the depths of his pockets. God knows how long it must have dwelled in there. It looks neither very official nor very important. In truth, it does not look like anyone would ever hold that piece of paper ever again. We make use of this observation and decide to mess around with this poor man’s soul.
First, he needs to write down our names. Truthfully, we tell him our names. We need to repeat it a few times, since they sound foreign to Russian ears and he can’t really grasp them. To make matters worse, he needs to write them down in Cyrillic, too. He seems to have a hard time. Since we’re not assholes (not yet) we mercifully show him our Russian visa, where our names have already been transcribed to Cyrillic. He gladly takes the help, but that is just the beginning. It’s nothing compared to what we have in store for him next.
Secondly, he enquires about our hometown’s names. Big mistake, Mr. security man, big mistake. Dominik answers as fast as false with “Linz”. It’s an easy exercise to transcribe that to Cyrillic, even I could do it. But why not take it to the next level and turn this poor man’s bad day into an even worse one? I need to think about my answer for a second and then I say that I live in “Sankt Pongau im Totengebirge an der Donauschlingenmündung im Ölztal”. Let that sink in for a moment. Not only is it an absurdly long name for a town that doesn’t even exist but also German native speakers would have serious troubles saying and remembering that “city’s” name. I’m not surprised to find that suddenly nobody cares about our identity anymore. Long story short, the whole incident was a pure waste of time, which left us with a piece of paper containing a fake Austrian town in Cyrillic letters. Unhindered can we can continue our way to Samara.
As we slowly get closer to Kazakhstan, the landscape and vegetation gradually, but steadily, changes. Having been surrounded by forests, green grass and fields so far, we more and more notice a transition to dry land now. This northwest-southeast-landscape-transition is even visible on Google’s satellite images.
In order to win some time (and because we feel particularly strong on this day) we decide to ride the whole day and the whole night through. This way we would reach Orenburg within 24 hours, making a total of two hundred-and-something kilometres. It’s a peaceful and frightening sensation at the same time going through the pitch-black Russian countryside. Literally pitch-black because there are no street lamps and my front light hasn’t been working since Ukraine. We swear to never ever attempt a night ride like this again, if it’s not absolutely necessary. Not because of the missing lights though. The mind is strong, but the body needs rest at night.
The days go by and sooner than later we find ourselves in the very north of Kazakhstan, having just crossed the border (I won’t yet again describe a border crossing, since I’ve done that so many times on this blog).
We are really excited about this particular country. Why? Because of the same reason you would be: we have never even heard about Kazakhstan prior to our tour and therefore know absolutely nothing about it. However, we are looking forward to deserts and camels.
(Update on Klas: as of today, 29.09.2017, Klas is in Kazakhstan. He’s doing perfectly fine. The plan was to meet up in different places in Russia and Kazakhstan, to stay in the same hostels, to have dinner together,… but unfortunately, things haven’t worked out. He got sick a few times and had to rest for longer periods, then we got sick and things delayed, and so on. He is perfectly healthy and kicking again. He has not set up any Facebook-page or blog, so you can’t really track his progress and whereabouts.)
The existence of the following list is evidence of my laziness. It contains more things and mini-events that happened in Russia. The events are not in chronological order.
- We have no affiliation with Volkswagen VW. Unfortunately 🙂
- Just give up. There is no way of finding postcards in Russia, especially not in the capital city, Moscow. I looked far and wide. All you can find there are fridge magnets (they look pretty good). However, no postcards. In the end, I was somehow able to find a few postcards (they didn’t have many in stock) but I lost much time and nearly my nerves too, on the way. The fifth post office I reluctantly entered, had some, locked away securely in a cabinet as if it was gold.
- From far away we got a glimpse on the soccer arena that’s being currently built on a hill in the Russian city Samara. The Soccer World Cup 2018 is hosted in Russia next year.
- I had a few more flat tires in Russia, of course. Dominik is still at zero flats. Amateur.
- When we left the city Orenburg (distance to the Kazakh border around 150 km), we officially crossed continents (from Europe to Asia). It’s a big deal for both of us, since we’ve never been to Asia so far. Yet alone on a bike.
- The night before the Kazakh border crossing Dominik slept without the outer tent (= the part that keeps the water away). In the early morning hours, a sudden rain left him, his sleeping back and all his belongings he had inside the tent completely wet. You are justified to assume that he learned his lesson. However, he didn’t. It happened two more times to him in Kazakhstan.
- The last kilometres before the Kazakh border we were accompanied by Aleksandr, on his old, rusty Russian bike. If I understood him correctly, he was looking for scrap metal on the road, to sell it afterwards. Because of the language barrier, our one-hour conversation covered only the basics. However, eventually he asked me whether I knew Modern Talking (a former German band with Dieter Bohlen). He said that he went to their concert in Russia. He also said that Dominik looks a lot like Thomas Anders.
- In many bigger Russian cities, there is a never-ending fire in the city’s centre, surrounded by huge, stone-carved soldiers. It is to remember the fallen Soviet soldiers from World War II.
- The boss of the hostel in Orenburg (a Kazakh man) invited us to stay at his house in the city Aqtobe in Kazakhstan when we would arrive there. We happily accepted the offer. Well, he didn’t answer his phone when we arrived, so we didn’t stay there.
- Believe it or not, but not a single time have we been offered or invited to vodka. I’m disappointed. If I had one expectation about Russia, then this it was.